When Helen was young and couldn’t sleep she’d conjure a comforting circle of people she loved, but now most of them were gone and instead she spent her white nights watching an endless loop of losses and regrets jumping a fence like cartoon sheep. At three thirty, she gave up and rose from bed.
The house was cold and she turned up the thermostat and then stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil and staring out the window into the backyard. A streetlight threw her garden in shadows. Against the white fence was an unfamiliar silhouette. Like furniture that assumes the shapes of monsters in the dark, she was sure the shadow would resolve itself if she looked at it long enough. Had she left the wheelbarrow outside? But she knew she hadn’t. And then, just as the kettle let out a sharp whistle, the dark shape against her fence moved.
“Cass?” she called, turning the burner off. Her voice sounded weak in the quiet. She listened for the taps of her Staffordshire terrier’s nails on the floor. Maybe it was Cass out by the fence. She’d left the doggie door open. But the shape looked too big, and besides, would Cass stay out there in the cold alone?
“Cass?” she called again, but still nothing. Which wasn’t right. Even from a deep sleep, Cass came running at the sound of her name.
Helen grabbed a heavy metal flashlight and moved to the back door. She hesitated for a moment. The neighborhood had seen its share of problems, but none lately. And whatever lurked back there had breached her fence and come into her yard. She couldn’t allow that.
She opened the door and walked past overgrown tomato plants and a row of cabbages toward the fence. When she was a few yards away, she turned on the flashlight and pointed. Two sets of eyes shone in the beam. A boy, leaning against the fence, arms around Cass.
Helen bent over and whispered, “Who are you?”
“I’m not doing nothing. Just resting.”
Cass whined and the boy released her. She moved to Helen, tail wagging, and then back to the boy, as if to ease an introduction. Helen started to tell him the fence was there for a reason, but the boy stood and Helen got a shock. His head barely came to her waist.
“Too cold out here to rest. Come inside.” Helen patted her thigh twice for Cass to follow and turned to the house. She listened for sounds behind her, half expecting to hear light, rapid footsteps in retreat. That would be best. He should be home, with his own people. But when she climbed the porch stairs to the back door and turned, the boy was a few steps behind, next to Cass. She opened the door and waited while dog and then boy entered.
Inside he stood next to the door, visibly shivering and taking in his surroundings as if trying to decide whether to stay or flee.
“I was just making tea,” she said. “Would you like something hot?”
“You got coffee?”
She moved to the kitchen and reached for the bag of decaf. She wasn’t going to give a child real coffee. After she made it, she added plenty of cream and sugar and carried it to the low table in the parlor along with her cup of tea.
“Here you go,” she said, gesturing to the sofa. “Have a seat.”
The boy hadn’t moved from his place by the door, but now he stepped toward her. Cass looped from her to the boy, leading him into the parlor.
Helen drank her tea in silence, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He held the mug with two hands, drank his coffee eagerly, and looked at the bookshelves. His hair was light brown and clung to his head like a cap, his eyes hazel.
“You got a lot of books,” he said as he put the empty mug down.
“You like books?”
He answered with a shrug that could have meant yes, no, or undecided.
“Who’s that?” He pointed to a framed photograph on the table next to him.
The couple seemed like strangers, her face unlined, her hair dark against the white veil, Sean’s wide, pale Irish face so earnest. “That’s my wedding photo,” she said.
The boy studied it, his face serious. “Is he sleeping?”
“You could say that. Sean died fifteen years ago.” She didn’t like to think about Sean’s death. “Would you like more coffee?”